Featured Poem: The Fair Chase and others from Black Cat Bone by John Burnside

Our Reading In Secure Environments (RISE) project comes to Liverpool this week, in partnership with Writing on the Wall and In Other Words. On Thursday, award winning poets Rita Ann Higgins and John Burnside will visit in-patient units in Merseycare NHS Trust and 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and HMP Liverpool. Later the same day, both will read from and discuss their work at a partner public event at LEAF.

In preparation for John’s visit to HMP Liverpool, Reader-in-Residence Alexis McNay has been reading from his Forward Poetry Prize and TS Eliot prize winning anthology Black Cat Bone with his Read and Relax group in the prison. In this account, the reactions of two young men, not seasoned poetry readers by any means, show the true spirit of RISE:

What we were after there, in the horn and vellum
shadows of the wood behind our house,
I never knew.

So opens and closes the first verse in The Fair Chase, setting the tone for the poem, the collection, and our own foraging during this Read and Relax (R&R) session at HMP Liverpool. By the time we sit down at this poem, with its wondrous and mesmerizing journey in pursuit of we never quite know what, we have already been over hill and dale – or what passes for that between the five stark landings on this Victorian prison wing – on a more mundane quest. I’d arrived to find the room we’ve used for three years being painted, assigned to a new education programme, without notice, and R&R is temporarily homeless. It takes us a while longer than usual to locate each other, and then a while more to find a spare room; it’s a single cell used – thankfully not this morning – for meetings, but it’s adequate for the two young men and myself that constitute the group today. The episode is typical to the environment, where such certainties as there are can be pulled out from under you. The resulting uncertainty holds no gratification. It’s of the Rumsfeldian order of ‘unknown unknowns’, where the cynicism at work behind the obscurity of the questions can leave you without the appetite required to pursue the answers. What a relief, then, when we finally emerge into the unknowns of John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone.

We’re reading this as an introduction to the poet and his work in anticipation of his visit to the prison as part of The Reader Organisation’s RISE (Reading in Secure Environments) project. The two young men, both in their early twenties, have been given copies of the book, and we begin with the long 11-page poem The Fair Chase. These are not seasoned poetry readers, and this is not – if you’ll allow me a precarious term – ‘easy’ poetry. I want you to picture this. We sit in a tight circle, we take it in turns to read sections, pausing to repeat and talk over some of the most arresting images, such as when the narrator/hunter, having taken his shot but found ‘no body, no warmth, no aftermath, nothing to prize’, digs himself in to wait for day, and feels

a gravity I’d never known before

dragging me down
so it seemed I would cleave to the earth,
the life I had taken

snug as a second skin.

The poem’s hunter of meaning finds himself ‘alone in a havoc of signs’; for us, the semiotic variables may be complicated by reading in company, but we bounce off each other, the search isn’t lonely, it’s fun. ‘W’ looks between me and ‘J’ as he repeats these lines. He’s on the verge of something, an exquisite poise the poem helps the reader maintain throughout, but though he struggles to find the words, this forward-leaning and almost-utterance isn’t about finding vocabulary, I don’t think – it’s about connecting with emotion. His repetition is like repeating the stimulus – touching wires together in the hope that the spark will make the leap – but the pleasure isn’t limited to the making of meaning. Which is good, because we are often flummoxed. ‘W’ knows that there is some commonality suggested by this ‘fit’ – ‘it’s like… they’re the same’ – and he had already noticed the intimacy in the earlier ‘all the world was still/and not a creature in it/but ourselves’, and this seems to be the essence of the idea, as close as we’re supposed to come, in keeping with the quarry in the poem, ‘glimpsed through a gap in the fog, not quite discerned,/not quite discernible: a mouth, then eyes,/then nothing.’

It would be something, though, to trace and light up the synaptic flashes between the three of us, none of us scholars, but generating quite a little firework display. We are grappling with some difficult ideas, but the two young men are absolutely up for it, open to it, and sensitive to some of the most troubling moments. ‘J’ isolates the point where hunter and quarry appear to come face-to-face;

I took a bullet,
loaded it with care
and aimed with an intent that felt like love

Again, there’s that act of repetition, trying to get an idea to solidify around a feeling. ‘It’s like respect… they’re looking at each other and there’s this common feeling’, he says. At the bottom of the page, the line ‘I pulled the trigger’ seems to disappoint him. The young men are still trying to discern a narrative, to recognize an animal, to anchor to the literal, primed by a culture where cause and effect, codification, and audience alignment tend toward the anodyne, directing understanding and limiting the need to consult the imagination. If they are not put off by the poem’s withholding of easy answers, it’s because they are tuned to its higher frequencies; when we reach the line describing a time and place

where, once or twice a year,
a girl would drown,
pledging her heart to a boy she had mostly imagined

we then begin wondering whether what the huntsman is chasing might also be something more abstract, like happiness, like love.

The Fair Chase ends – leaves us with –‘an echo’, and although one of the young men feigns being disgruntled, feeling short-changed – ‘we’ve been reading this for half and hour and we’re left with… with… an echo!?, all pursed lips and hands on hips – we all know we’ve enjoyed it. We look at other shorter poems, Amnesia, for example, which parallels the ‘blanking out’ of new snowfall with another type of obliteration, prompting ‘W’ to talk of the way snow erases landmarks by which we navigate, and ‘J’ to reminisce about how he’d get the toboggan out as soon as it snowed, and ‘break and cut all me fingers and hands’ careering down hills.

Black Cat Bone is a collection you can dip into – lucky-dip into – in many ways. I’m still pondering a line in Amnesia, and ‘J’ says, ‘there’s some shit-hot lines in here’.

‘Which line are you looking at?’ I ask.

‘Page 35,’ he says, and reads

I have a dream.
She’s in an attic room
with someone else,

hands in her skirt and that
dove sound caught in her throat

that I thought was ours.

He’s moved on to a new poem, attracted by the sexual intrigue, the smack of narrative. ‘W’ wants to read Dope Head Blues, and I don’t think he finds what he was expecting, but we always find something. ‘W’ says, ‘this is a proper writer, because he doesn’t tell you everything… you have to use your imagination’. There’s a healthy irreverence, too, from these two urban lads; when I suggest that they’ll be able to ask the poet questions when he visits, ‘J’ adopts a jokey confrontational stance, addressing an imaginary John Burnside – ‘yeah, what happened to the end of that long poem? eh? And you know that dream you had? That was me in the attic… nah, I’m only joking!’

When I ask for assurances that they’ll be at the reading, they seek their own clarity, ‘yeah, we’ll come, if you promise to ask him to sign our copies’.

Tickets are still available for John and Rita’s public reading at LEAF this Thursday, May 9th, and can be purchased from the Writing on the Wall website or via the Philharmonic Hall Box Office, Hope Street, Liverpool, L1 9BH.

Find out more about RISE, the events and featured authors by visiting our dedicated RISE blog: http://risereader.org.uk/

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